The 2017 song “Despacito,” by Puerto Rican artists Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee (and later re-mixed with no less a talent than Justin Bieber), remains one of the most popular songs of all time. 

Its music video surpassed three billion YouTube views in record time, and by the end of 2019 it had been viewed no fewer than six billion times. Vulture called the song, the title of which means “slowly” in English, “a sexy Spanish sing-along” featuring “catchy refrains and (an) insistent beat.” And according to NPR it is “the culmination of a decade-long rise of sociological and musical forces that eventually birthed and cemented a style now called urbano.”

It is also, sadly, a contributor to the worldwide environmental crisis. Fortune noted last year that a mere Google search for “Despacito” activates servers in six to eight different data storage centers around the globe, and that YouTube views of the video — which were at five billion at the time the piece appeared — had consumed the energy equivalent of 40,000 U.S. homes in a year.

In all, data centers, the very backbone of the digital economy, soak up about three percent of the world’s electricity, and produce about two percent of its greenhouse gasses. And with data exploding — there were 33 zettabytes of it in 2017, and there are expected to be 175 by 2025 — these issues are only expected to become more acute. It is estimated that by 2030, data centers will consume 10 percent of the world’s energy.

“Ironically, the phrase ‘moving everything to the cloud’ is a problem for our actual climate right now,” said Ben Brock Johnson, a tech analyst for WBUR, a Boston-based NPR affiliate.

Thankfully, tech giants are already in the process of dealing with the problem. Sustainable data centers are not only a thing of the future; they are a thing of the present. In other words, the cloud has become greener, in the hope that it will become greener still.

That’s reflected in the fact that Microsoft’s stated goal is to slice its carbon emissions by 50 percent in the next decade; that Facebook bought more renewable energy than any other company in 2019 (and was followed by Google, AT&T, Microsoft and T-Mobile, in that order); that in April of this year Google introduced a computing platform it labelled “carbon intelligent;” and that Amazon Web Services hopes to be net-carbon-zero by 2040, a decade earlier than mandated by the Paris Agreement.

As Microsoft president Brad Smith told Data Center Frontier, his company sees “an  acute need to begin removing carbon from the atmosphere,” which has led it to compile “a portfolio of negative emission technologies (NET) potentially including afforestation and reforestation, soil carbon sequestration, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCs), and direct air capture.”

The initial focus, Smith added, will be on these “nature-based solutions,” with “technology-based solutions” to follow. The net effect will be the same, however — a greener cloud. It comes not a moment too soon, as reflected in the aforementioned statistics, as well as the fact that the U.S. alone was responsible for about 33 percent of total energy-related emissions in 2018, or that by 2023 China’s data centers are expected to increase energy consumption by 66 percent.

How it happens

As mentioned, the commonplace use of technology in our society, while seemingly harmless, contributes to these emission levels. Everything from watching that “Despacito’ video to uploading a picture to scrolling through your Twitter feed involves data centers. 

While electricity might on the surface seem distinct from other emission sources, the reality is that they are as much fueled by the same resources as other industries. Coal, natural gas, and petroleum are the primary resources used to power electricity. For example, according to a Greenpeace study, 73 percent of China’s data centers are powered by coal.

But it’s not just the fact that data centers require electricity to run. The sheer amount of energy produced by data centers means that they produce a lot of heat, and cooling systems must be put in place to counteract that. 

On average, servers need to maintain temperatures below 80 degrees to function properly. Often, cooling makes up about 40 percent of total electricity usage in data centers. So altogether, the reliance on fossil fuels and nonrenewables alongside necessary cooling systems are what ultimately cause the emissions from data centers.

Where to go from here

Many top-tier tech companies have been taking their cues from Susanna Kass, a member of Climate 50 and the data center advisor for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Program. Blessed with 30 years of data-center experiences herself, Kass applauds the sustainability initiatives launched by such companies, and believes there will in fact be an escape from the “dirty cloud,” as she calls it, that has enveloped the industry.

In addition to the aforementioned steps she said these centers need to curtail the practice of over-provisioning, which commonly involves providing one backup server for every four that are running. She adds that coal obviously needs to be phased out as a power source for these centers, and that carbon neutrality must continue to be the top priority.

“The goal,” she told The New Stack, “is to promote better digital welfare as we evolve into the digital age.”

Indeed there is no other choice, given the fact that recent reports indicate we only have until 2030 to stop the climate catastrophe. With great (electric) power, comes great responsibility, and it seems the tech giants are now heeding that call.